School wins selection claims action
One of England's oldest and most distinguished Catholic state-funded boys' schools has won a High Court action over a finding that its admissions criteria was socially selective, discriminatory and unfairly disadvantaged children from less well-off families.
A judge in London said that this conclusion by an education watchdog relating to The London Oratory School - whose pupils have included the sons of former prime minister Tony Blair, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman - was "flawed" and must be quashed.
Mr Justice Cobb said that a school adjudicator's decision on that issue was "reached by a process which was procedurally unfair to the school".
An Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) investigation was triggered by a complaint from the British Humanist Association about the faith-based criteria used to select pupils for places at the heavily oversubscribed Catholic academy, founded in 1863.
The school went to the High Court to challenge a number of OSA findings that many aspects of its arrangements for 2014 and 2015 breached the schools admissions code.
Following a hearing last month, Mr Justice Cobb today announced his decision in the case. He quashed some of the adjudicator's findings, but upheld others.
The judge said: "It is highly regrettable that the two investigations undertaken in relation to this school since May 2013 have now been shown in material respects to be flawed.
"While I believe that the adjudicator has, in the main, endeavoured to fulfil his responsibilities conscientiously for the long-term benefit of the school, the candidates and their parents, his approach to his task in the specific respects set out (in his ruling) have in my judgment been shown to be unlawful and/or unreasonable and cannot stand.
"This will be of little comfort to the school which has, I am sure, found this process extremely challenging."
The school's solicitor Ane Vernon commented: "The allegation, which made headline news, that the school was socially selective and discriminating against less well-off families has been hurtful to staff, pupils and parents.
"This damaging allegation has been found by the judge to be wrong and unfair, and the finding vindicates the robust approach the school has had to take against the Office of the Schools Adjudicator."
Headmaster David McFadden said: "The judge's decision supports us in continuing to preserve the school's ethos and serving Catholic families throughout the whole of London."
Mr McFadden added: "It is profoundly regrettable that the school - and other schools - have to expend precious resources, year after year, in standing up to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.
"These are key resources that should go to our children's education and their future, not overturning ultimately flawed and unmeritorious decisions. Schools within the state sector have serious questions to ask about the adjudication process."
Mr Justice Cobb said the school had "succeeded in demonstrating" that the adjudicator's conclusion "that the governing body of the school had operated an admissions system which was socially selective, discriminatory and unfairly disadvantageous to children from 'less well-off' families was flawed, and was reached by a process which was procedurally unfair to the school".
He said: "The adjudicator's conclusions on this aspect plainly adversely affected the school. I am satisfied that the adjudicator reached this conclusion by a mix of flawed reasoning and unfair process. In the circumstances, I am satisfied that this finding must be quashed."
The judge ruled in favour of the school on various aspects of its judicial review action, but said that "in all other respects I conclude that the adjudicator reached conclusions which were lawful, or not otherwise susceptible to challenge".
He rejected the school's challenge against the adjudicator's conclusion that it was not permissible to include "Catholic service" as one of its faith-based over-subscription criteria.
The adjudicator said it was a breach of the admissions code for the school to include "service in a Catholic parish or in the wider Catholic Church" as one of its criteria for selecting pupils.
This could include reading or singing in the choir, playing an instrument, altar serving or flower arranging, assisting in parish work by visiting those in need or taking part in parish groups, or getting involved in other activities such as voluntary work by visiting and helping sick or housebound people.
After announcing his decision, the judge ruled that an issue relating to the "extent to which the school had regard to the diocesan guidance" when considering its faith-based admissions criteria should be remitted to a different adjudicator to be looked at in accordance with his judgment.
In his ruling he said the school had succeeded in demonstrating that the adjudicator had "applied too stringent a test" when concluding that it had failed to "have regard" to the published guidance when setting the over-subscription criteria.
In sending that issue back to be resolved, the judge said he was conscious of the "time this process has taken thus far and the inevitable and consequential burden upon the school".
He said he trusted the adjudicator could conclude that process by the end of June.
Dealing with the costs of the case, the judge said the school had "very substantially" succeeded in its claim and said the defendant should pay 80% of its costs, with a payment "on account" of £60,000.
In his written judgment he said the school was "extraordinarily popular and is vastly oversubscribed year on year". It was "an outstanding and successful school with high standards of academic teaching".
During the hearing of the dispute, he was told that there were annually 800 or more 11-year-olds applying for 160 places, while its junior house and co-educational sixth form were similarly oversubscribed.
The school's QC said it promoted "a strongly Catholic ethos", and aimed to serve the Catholic community across the whole of London, taking in pupils from, on average, at least 25 boroughs.
Its pan-London mission was to assist parents to educate their children in the principles and teachings of the Catholic Church, and provide a unique liturgical culture founded in the spiritual and musical traditions of its founders.